Tuesday, July 5, 2011

When the justice system sees its shadow

Casey Anthony
I have been watching friends' responses to the Casey Anthony verdict with much interest. Admittedly, I really haven't been following it in the news as closely as others. I do know, however, that a young child was murdered and an emotionally-erratic mother was prosecuted.

When I was in my 20s, I became a bar-certified paralegal. One of the electives I took was Criminal Law. Every advisor in the program said I was crazy to waste my time since there are very few criminal paralegals. But since I have always been interested in criminal law since the Perry Mason days, I felt I would enjoy the course and also learn a lot about the inner-workings of a criminal court case and the American criminal justice system.

My instructor was a private criminal defense attorney who just made the break from working for the State of MA as a public defense attorney. He had some great stories and wove these examples into his class. I was fascinated.

One of the things we discussed quite a bit was the burden-of-proof concept and how that was really the basis for all law, but especially criminal law. When convicted of a criminal offense, what's at stake is a citizen's freedom or life, not his material possessions. So, the burden of proof is higher in criminal cases. 

The reason, for example, that OJ was found not guilty in a criminal case while later being found guilty in a civil case for the same offense, is that shift in the burden-of-proof.

When the State prosecutes a criminal case, it has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. In a civil case, the plaintiff need only prove a preponderance of the evidence.

There are many differences between criminal and civil law but that "shadow of a doubt" concept is the biggest.

So, when I heard that Anthony's defense attorneys did a good job creating that shadow, and that the State of Florida didn't do a good job of proving that the shadow was unreasonable, I assumed a not guilty verdict would be delivered.

As it should in this case.

My criminal law professor said that it's better to let one hundred guilty defendants go free than to imprison or execute one innocent defendant. And as hard as that is to hear, it is absolutely the way you want your country's court system to run.

I never blame the jury, I always point to the attorneys and the judge if there are questions about the verdict. Was the rule of law upheld? Was the discovery process fair and open? Did the attorneys on both sides have every opportunity to defend or prosecute fairly?

If the answer to all of those questions is Yes, then you have to question either the skill (or lack thereof, see: OJ) of the prosecuting attorneys, or the quality of the evidence or witnesses.

I've seen lots of instances where, if the defense attorneys do a great job, those who question the verdict often pin the blame on them accusing them of being soulless mercenaries. To that I say, if it were your head on the chopping block, you would want nothing less.

Case law is the most important type of law in this country since most of the subsequent law is based on its verdicts and judges' opinions rather than on statutory law. So, getting it right is huge.

But forgetting the balancing scales of justice and replacing them with emotion is the biggest shadow anyone could cast on this very American system.